Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Unbroken Chain

There is an unbroken chain in the life of the Church, in the proclamation of the Word of God, of the celebration of the Sacraments, that has come down to us and that we call Tradition. It gives us the guarantee that what we believe is the original message of Christ, preached by the Apostles. The nucleus of the primordial proclamation is the death and the Resurrection of the Lord, from which stems the entire patrimony of the faith. The Council says: “The apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by a continuous line of succession until the end of time” (Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, n. 8).

In this way, if Sacred Scripture contains the Word of God, the Tradition of the Church preserves it and faithfully transmits it, so that the men and women of every age might have access to its vast resources and be enriched by its treasures of grace. Thus, the Church, “in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes” (ibid.).

General Audience, 31 October 2012

Reflection – Well here we have a good little catechesis on revelation, the Church, and faith. Where the Reformation tradition of Luther and Calvin upholds sola scriptura (the scriptures alone) as the place of revelation, the Catholic faith has always been that God reveals Himself in His word and in the living unbroken Tradition of the Church, that which has been passed down to us from generation to generation.

If I can briefly dip into the field of apologetics, the fatal weakness of the Protestant position is that it is itself unscriptural. By its own argument—that the scriptures alone are the source of revealed truth—it is self-refuting. There is not a single Bible verse from Genesis to Revelation that states the principle of sola scriptura. It is, itself, an expression of Protestant Tradition, and extra-biblical. There is also, nowhere in the Bible, a list of the canonical books of the Bible (and no, the table of contents at the front doesn’t count). The very composition of the Bible, then, is an extra-biblical contribution of Sacred Tradition.

None of that is a problem for Catholics. It has always been our understanding that God comes to us in His word, in Tradition, and that all this is mediated by the living authority of His Church and its episcopal leadership. The Bible is a precious and unique place of God’s revelation, where the very words of Truth and salvation are recorded in an fixed, unchanging expression, but it sits in honour within a living communion of faith and love—the life of the Church.

Anyhow, enough apologetics. It is amazing, though, how many Catholics need to be reminded of our faith in this matter. For many Catholics, it is a serious business if a Protestant says to them, ‘Well, your beliefs about Mary (or Confession… or the papacy…) are not in the Bible!’ Really, this shouldn’t faze us. We could easily respond, with charity of course, ‘Well, your beliefs about the Bible are not in the Bible!’ and that would be the end of the matter.

Meanwhile, it is so very beautiful that God arranged things this way. It is, again, this whole business I have blogged about already this week—he really means it that we are to be a family, a body, a communion of love. He really wants us, and in fact is quite set on it, that the life of the Church will be a true life, and so He communicates the fullness of his Truth to us only in the life of the body.

Any fool can walk into a book store, buy a Bible, sit down and read it, and think they now possess the fullness of God’s truth. And, as we see so clearly, that approach to understanding God’s revelation results in—how many is it now?—thousands of little Protestant churches, each quite sure that their doctrines are 100% scriptural. A privatized, deeply individualistic, and ultimately relativistic view of faith is the inevitable result of sola scriptura theology.
Meanwhile, to receive Scripture and Tradition together as the fullness of truth means being part of the living communion of the Church. It means, yes, being submissive to the authority of the Church, but even the bishops and even the Pope must themselves be submissive to the 2000 years of unbroken transmission of faith in the life of the Church. It is the utter opposite of an individual, private, relativized faith—it is an entry, if we choose to take it as such, into the depths of communion with God and from that, with one another. And that is what God has revealed to us as His great desire for the human race.


  1. Father Denis,

    Very beautiful. Thank you.
    Submission. Why did you choose that word? I am not a wordsmith. But, isn't assent a better word? It implies somewhow connecting the head and heart and moving from there. Faith and reason are not incompatible.
    Because I believe that God himself speaks in the individual conscience- and that the church's teaching is supposed to help us hear God speaking.
    Each of us will be forming our conscience until we die and the church will be in the process of forming her collective conscience until Jesus comes again. Isn't this what Dei Verbum no 8 says?
    Because, I do not think the teachings of the church are meant to control people..but help us discover ourselves and learn from our mistakes.
    Part of what I hear in this is that there is a development of understanding revelation that is taking place and it may not be complete until the catastrophe or second coming.
    I hope you can understand me. Are we still on the same page?

    2. Interpreting the document of Vatican 11 with tradition as an emphasis is good and right and needs to be insisted upon. The problem arises when this principle is applied in a way that excludes all discontinuity, that is, all change. Stuff happened...tons of stuff happened, and the meanings and understandings of many things are changed forever. Some of that is not all bad you know....

    1. Well, I guess I do mean to stress that there is, in fact, a real authority at work here. Not ultimately the Pope's or the bishops' authority, but God's, which really does have the last word.
      Submissive is a strong word, but... well, that's the word I chose, and I do mean it!

    2. Father Denis,
      Bless you.
      It wasn't my intention to dispute God's authority.
      Just trying to understand the process by which we know it.
      Thank you so much for your words these last days.

    3. Sorry - I didn't mean to sound harsh or abrupt. Kind of living at a run these days, so sometimes come across like I'm annoyed. My apologies. God bless you.


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